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The Global Rushmore of Autocrats

Donald Trump would dearly like to add his face to Mt. Rushmore as the fifth presidential musketeer. His fireworks-and-fury extravaganza on July 3 was the next best thing. Trump’s dystopian speech was almost beside the point. Much more important was the photo op of his smirking face next to Abraham Lincoln’s.

More fitting, however, would be to carve Trump’s face into a different Rushmore altogether. This one would be located in a more appropriate badlands, like Mt. Hermon in Syria near the border with Israel. There, Donald Trump’s visage would join those of his fellow autocrats, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. To honor the illiberal locals, the stony countenances of Bashar al-Assad and Benjamin Netanyahu would make it a cozy quintet.

Let’s be frank: Jefferson and Washington are not the company that Trump keeps, despite his America First pretensions. His ideological compatriots are to be found in other countries: Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Narendra Modi of India, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Viktor Orban of Hungary, and so on. Alas, this global Rushmore of autocrats is becoming as crowded as a football team pressed together for a selfie.

But Putin and Xi stand out from the rest. They get pride of place because of their long records of authoritarian policies and the sheer brazenness of their recent power grabs. By comparison, Trump is the arrogant newcomer who may well not last the season, an impulsive sprinter in the marathon of geopolitics. If things go badly for Team Trump in November, America will suddenly be busy air-brushing 45 out of history and gratefully chiseling his face out of the global Rushmore.

Putin and Xi, however, are in it for the long haul.

Leader for Life

At the end of June, Russia held a referendum on a raft of constitutional changes that President Vladimir Putin proposed earlier in the year. In front of Russian voters were over 200 proposed amendments. No wonder the authorities gave Russians a full week to vote. They should have provided mandatory seminars on constitutional law as well.

Of course, the Russian government wasn’t looking to stimulate a wide-ranging discussion of governance. The Russian parliament had already approved the changes. Putin simply wanted Russian voters to rubber-stamp his nationalist-conservative remaking of his country.

At the same time, a poor turnout would not have been a good look. To guarantee what the Kremlin’s spokesman described as a “triumphant referendum on confidence” in Putin, workplaces pressured their employees to vote, and the government distributed lottery prizes. Some people managed to vote more than once. On top of that, widespread fraud was necessary to achieve the preordained positive outcome.

Instead of voting on each of the amendments, Russians had to approve or disapprove the whole package. Among the constitutional changes were declarations that marriage is only between a man and a woman, that Russians believe in God, and that the Russian constitution takes precedence over international law.

Several measures increased executive power over the ministries and the judiciary. A few sops were thrown to Putin’s core constituencies, like pensioners.

Who was going to vote against God or retirees?

But the jewel in the crown was the amendment that allows Putin to run for the presidency two more times. Given his systematic suppression of the opposition, up to and including assassination, Putin will likely be in office until he’s 84 years old. That gives him plenty of time to, depending on your perspective, make Russia great again or make Russia into Putin, Inc.

The Russian president does not dream of world domination. He has regional ambitions at best. Yet these ambitions have brought Russia into conflict with the United States over Ukraine, Syria, even outer space. And then there’s the perennial friction over Afghanistan.

Much has been made in the U.S. press about Putin offering the Taliban bounties for U.S. and coalition soldiers. It’s ugly stuff, but no uglier than what the United States was doing back in the 1980s.

Did you think that all the U.S. money going to the mujahideen was to cultivate opium poppies, run madrasas, and plan someday to bite the hand that fed them? The U.S. government was giving the Afghan “freedom fighters” guns and funds to kill Soviet soldiers, nearly 15,000 of whom died over the course of the war. The Russians have been far less effective. At most, the Taliban have killed 18 U.S. soldiers since the beginning of 2019, with perhaps a couple tied to the bounty program.

Still, it is expected that a U.S. president would protest such a direct targeting of U.S. soldiers even if he has no intention to retaliate. Instead, Donald Trump has claimed that Putin’s bounty program is a hoax. “The Russia Bounty story is just another made up by Fake News tale that is told only to damage me and the Republican Party,” Trump tweeted.

Knowing how sensitive the U.S. president and the U.S. public is to the death of U.S. soldiers overseas, Putin couldn’t resist raising the stakes in Afghanistan and making U.S. withdrawal that much more certain. Taking the United States out of the equation — reducing the transatlantic alliance, edging U.S. troops out of the Middle East, applauding Washington’s exit from various international organizations — provides Russia with greater maneuvering room to consolidate power in the Eurasian space.

Trump has dismissed pretty much every unsavory Kremlin act as a hoax, from U.S. election interference to assassinations of critics overseas. Trump cares little about Ukraine, has been lukewarm if not hostile toward U.S. sanctions against Moscow, and has consistently attempted to bring Russia back into the G8. Yet he has also undermined the most important mechanism of engagement with Russia, namely arms control treaties.

Trump’s servile approach to Putin and disengaged approach to Russia is the exact opposite of the kind of principled engagement policy that Washington should be constructing. The United States should be identifying common interests with Russia over nuclear weapons, climate, regional ceasefires, reviving the Iran nuclear deal — and at the same time criticizing Russian conduct that violates international norms.

Territory Grab

Xi Jinping has already made himself leader for life, and he didn’t need to go to the pretense of a referendum on constitutional changes. In 2018, the National People’s Congress simply removed the two-term limit on the presidency and boom: Xi can be on top ‘til he drops.

Forget about collective leadership within the Party. And certainly forget about some kind of evolution toward democracy. Under Xi, China has returned to the one-man rule of the Mao period.

So, while Putin was busy securing his future this past weekend, Xi focused instead on securing China’s future as an integrated, politically homogeneous entity. In other words, Xi moved on Hong Kong.

Hong Kong once had great economic value for Beijing as a gateway to the global economy. Now that China has all the access to the global economy that it needs and then some, Hong Kong has only symbolic value, as a former colonial territory returned to the Chinese nation in 1997. To the extent that Hong Kong remains an enclave of free-thinkers who take potshots at the Communist Party, Beijing will step by step deprive it of democracy.

On June 30, a new national security law went into effort in Hong Kong. “The new law names four offences: secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces,” Matt Ho writes in the South China Morning Post. “It also laid out new law enforcement powers and established government agencies responsible for national security. Conviction under the law includes sentences of life in prison.”

The protests that have roiled Hong Kong for the past many months, from Beijing’s point of view, violate the national security law in all four categories. So, violators may now face very long prison sentences indeed, and police have already arrested a number of people accused of violating the new law. The new law extends to virtually all aspects of society, including the schools, which now must “harmonize” their teaching with the party line in Beijing.

What’s happening in Hong Kong, however, is still a dilute version of the crackdown taking place on the Mainland. This week, the authorities in Beijing arrested Xu Zhangrun, a law professor and prominent critic of Xi Jinping. He joins other detainees, like real estate mogul Ren Zhiqiang, who was linked to an article calling Xi a “clown with no clothes on who was still determined to play emperor” and Xu Zhiyong, who called on Xi to resign for his handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang province amounts to collective punishment: more than a million consigned to “reeducation camps,” children separated from their families, forced sterilization. Uyghur exiles have charged China with genocide and war crimes before the International Criminal Court.

Like Putin, Xi has aligned himself with a conservative nationalism that appeals to a large portion of the population. Unlike Putin, the Chinese leader doesn’t have to worry about approval ratings or periodic elections. He is also sitting on a far larger economy, much greater foreign currency reserves, and the means to construct an illiberal internationalism to replace the Washington consensus that has prevailed for several decades.

Moreover, there are no political alternatives on the horizon in China that could challenge Xi or his particular fusion of capitalism and nationalism.

Trump has pursued the same kind of unprincipled engagement with China as he has with Russia: flattery of the king, indifference toward human rights, and a focus on profit. Again, principled engagement requires working with China on points of common concern while pushing back against its human rights violations.

Of course, that’s not going to happen under the human rights violation that currently occupies the White House.

And Trump Makes Three

Donald Trump aspires to become leader for life like his buddies Putin and Xi, as he has “joked” on numerous occasions. He has similarly attacked the mainstays of a democratic society — the free press, independent judges, inspectors general. He has embraced the same nationalist-conservative cultural policies.

And he has branded his opponents enemies of the people. In his Rushmore speech on July 3, Trump lashed out against…

“a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance. If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished. It’s not going to happen to us. Make no mistake: this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution. In so doing, they would destroy the very civilization that rescued billions from poverty, disease, violence, and hunger, and that lifted humanity to new heights of achievement, discovery, and progress.”

He went on to describe his crackdown on protesters, his opposition to “liberal Democrats,” his efforts to root out opposition in schools, newsrooms and “even our corporate boardrooms.” Like Putin, he sang the praises of the American family and religious values. He described an American people that stood with him and the Rushmore Four and against all those who have exercised their constitutional rights of speech and assembly.

You’d never know from the president’s diatribe that protesters were trying to overthrow not the American Revolution but the remnants of the Confederacy.

Trump’s supporters have taken to heart the president’s attacks on America’s “enemies.”

Since the protests around George Floyd’s killing began in May, there have been at least 50 cases of cars ramming into demonstrators, a favorite tactic used by white supremacists. There have been over 400 reports of press freedom violations. T. Greg Doucette, a “Never Trump” conservative lawyer, has collected over 700 videos of police misconduct, usually violent, toward peaceful demonstrators.

As I’ve written, there is no left-wing “cultural revolution” sweeping the United States. It is Donald Trump who is hoping to unleash a cultural revolution carried out by a mob of violent backlashers who revere the Confederate flag, white supremacy, and the Mussolini-like president who looks out upon all the American carnage from his perch on the global Rushmore of autocrats.

FPIF, July 8, 2020

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Inside the Battle for Another World

A succession of social upheavals over the last decade has radically realigned political power throughout the world.

As a result of these tectonic shifts, what had once been on the furthest fringes of the right has now moved toward the center while the left has been pushed to the margins. “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold,” poet William Yeats wrote at a time of similar political churn in 1919. “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”

Today, 100 years after the publication of Yeats’s poem, those who are full of passionate intensity now rule over considerably more than half the world’s population. Many of these leaders — Donald Trump (United States), Jair Bolsonaro (Brazil), Narendra Modi (India), Viktor Orbán (Hungary), Recep Tayyip Erdoğan (Turkey), Rodrigo Duterte (Philippines) — have come to power democratically but are determined to undermine democratic institutions.

Their political rise has often been supported by more conventional conservative parties. They have aligned themselves on an ad hoc basis with other authoritarian leaders who owe their positions to military coups, one-party deliberations, or dynastic succession. Further to their right, a set of avowedly racist organizations and networks provide ideas, messaging, and sometimes muscle for these leaders of the new right.

This is not a normal oscillation in electoral power. The new right has set about reordering the political landscape. Mainstream parties have lost credibility. Politics have become even more polarized. Not just liberalism but democracy itself is under attack.

Nor will the guardrails of democratic governance necessarily contain the ambitions of these new right-wing leaders. They have challenged constitutional, legislative, and judicial restraints. They have attacked the cornerstones of civil society, including the press and other watchdog institutions. They aspire to become leaders for life (like Vladimir Putin, in charge since 1999) or to establish parties that govern with little opposition for decades on end (like Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, in power almost continuously since 1955).

Rhetorically, the new right is focused on securing borders, protecting sovereignty, and challenging global elites. These leaders use the language of nationalism and particularism. They speak in the name of imagined majorities that are racially or religiously homogeneous.

Despite this obsession with strengthening the nation-state, this new right has increasingly been active across borders. States and parties have created alliances, with transnational activists like former Trump advisor Steve Bannon aspiring to build a kind of Nationalist International. Extremist civil society organizations have promoted a climate of intolerance that nurtures the political ambitions of right-wing populist leaders. White nationalists in particular have created alternative digital platforms to spread their messages and recruit new members across the globe.

Progressives have organized locally and nationally to respond to the new right. But ironically, given their historic internationalism, progressives have been slow to work across borders — in a sustained, coordinated manner — in response to the new transnational assault on democracy. This dilute internationalism coincides with both the new right’s attacks on global institutions and an intensification of various global threats such as climate change, pandemics, widening economic inequality, and weapons proliferation.

“Internationalism is now a problem for the left,” observes Gadi Algazi of Tel Aviv University, “and a reality for the right.”

In a new report, The Battle for Another World, I synthesize my conversations with more than 80 activists, analysts, and academics around the world. The report analyzes the rise of the new right, its connections to other far-right actors, and its new global aspirations. It surveys the current state of transnational progressive organizing. It outlines the challenges to that organizing and identify both lessons learned and best practices. And it concludes with a discussion of what’s missing from a robust, multi-issue, progressive transnationalism and how to fill those gaps.

Key conclusions from this report include:

  • An international reaction to economic globalization has been key to the right’s success. Unlike the internationalist left, the new right has been more effective at channeling discontent into political success at a national level.
  • Key to the new right’s success has been a story that can be applied effectively across borders: the “great replacement.” The argument that minorities, with help from “globalists,” will usurp the privileges of the dominant group has proven appealing to both an extremist fringe and more mainstream conservatives.
  • The new right has achieved political success with its attacks on globalization in a way the left failed to do. But the new right has a key failing: It has nothing to say about an ever-worsening climate crisis.
  • The 80 international experts overwhelmingly identified the school climate strikes as the present moment’s most promising international action and the Green New Deal as a framework that could defeat the right’s global narrative.
  • A Global Green New Deal wouldn’t just address the environmental crisis. By creating enormous numbers of well-paying jobs, it would also speak to those left behind by economic globalization. Such a narrative would undermine the new right’s anti-globalist appeals while offering up a positive vision to rally around within and across borders.

As the twenty-first century began, progressives famously proclaimed that “another world is possible.” They imagined a world beyond rote democracy and the rapacious market.

With the longstanding liberal-conservative status quo now crumbling, the new right has not only taken up this call, it is putting it into practice. This construction of “another world” — an intolerant, anti-democratic, unsustainable world — can be stopped before it is too late. But it requires that the best of us regain the conviction that Yeats described — not just to counter the new right, but to save the planet from ruin.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, December 4, 2019

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Articles Featured Human Rights Russia and Eastern Europe

Democracy Desperately Need a Reboot

If you’re a supporter of Donald Trump — or Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil or Matteo Salvini in Italy — you probably think that democracy has never been in better health.

Recent elections in these countries didn’t just serve to rotate the elite from the conventional parties. Voters went to the polls and elected outsiders who promised to transform their political systems. That demonstrates that the system, that democracy itself, is not rigged in favor of the “deep state” or the Bilderberg global elite — or the plain vanilla leaders of the center left and center right.

Moreover, from the perspective of this populist voter, these outsiders have continued to play by the democratic rules. They are pushing for specific pieces of legislation. They are making all manner of political and judicial appointments. They are trying to nudge the economy one way or another. They are standing up to outside forces who threaten to undermine sovereignty, the bedrock of any democratic system.

Sure, these outsiders might make intemperate statements. They might lie. They might indulge in a bit of demagoguery. But politicians have always sinned in this way. Democracy carries on regardless.

You don’t have to be a supporter of right-wing populists to believe that democracy is in fine fettle. The European Union just held elections to the European Parliament. The turnout was over 50 percent, the highest in two decades.

True, right-wing populists increased their share from one-fifth to one-fourth of the chamber, with Marine Le Pen’s party coming out on top in France, Salvini’s Liga taking first place in Italy, and Nigel Farage’s Brexit party winning in the UK. But on the other side of the spectrum, the Greens came in second in Germany and expanded their stake of the European parliament from 7 to 9 percent. And for the first time, two pan-European parties ran candidates. The multi-issue progressive Democracy in Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM 25) received more than 1.4 million votes (but failed to win any seats).

Or maybe you’re an activist fighting for democracy in an authoritarian state. In some countries, you have reason to celebrate. You just succeeded in forcing out the long-serving leader of long-suffering Sudan. You just booted the old, sick, corrupt head of Algeria. You’ve seen some important steps forward in terms of greater political pluralism in Ethiopia, in Malaysia, in Mexico.

You can cherry-pick such examples and perspectives to build a case that the world is continuing to march, albeit two steps forward and one step back, towards a more democratic future.

But you’d be wrong. Democracy faces a global crisis. And this crisis couldn’t be coming at a worse time.

Democracy’s Fourth Wave

In 1991, political scientist Samuel Huntington published his much-cited book, The Third Wave. After a first wave of democratization in the nineteenth century and a second wave after World War II, Huntington argued, a third wave began to sweep through the world with the overthrow of dictatorship in Portugal in 1974 and leading all the way up to the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe and the fall of apartheid in South Africa.

It was at this time, too, that Francis Fukuyama and others were talking about the inevitable spread of democracy — hand in hand with the market — to every corner of the globe. Democratic politics appeared to be an indispensable element of modernity. As countries hit a certain economic, social, and technological threshold, a more educated and economically successful population demands greater political participation as a matter of course.

Of course, democracy doesn’t just arrive like a prize when a country achieves a certain level of GDP. Movements of civil society, often assisted by reformers in government, push for free and fair elections, greater government transparency, equal rights for minorities, and so on.

Sometimes, too, outside actors play a role — providing trainings or financing for those movements of civil society. Sometimes democratic nations sanction undemocratic governments for their violations of human rights. Sometimes more aggressive actors, like U.S. neoconservatives in the 2000s, push for military intervention in support of a regime change (ostensibly to democracy), as was the case in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Libya.

However, the modernization thesis generates too many exceptions to remain credible. Both China and Saudi Arabia function at a high economic level without democracy. Russia and Turkey, both modern countries, have backslid into illiberal states. Of the countries that experienced Arab Spring revolutions in 2011, only Tunisia has managed to maintain a democracy — as civil war overtook Libya, a military coup displaced a democratically elected government in Egypt, Bashar al-Assad beat back various challenges in Syria, and the Gulf States repressed one mass demonstration after another.

More recently, backed by Saudi Arabia and the UAE, the military in Sudan is using violence to resist the demands of democracy activists to turn over government to civilian hands. In Algeria, the military hasn’t resorted to violence, but it also hasn’t stepped out of the way.

Move back a few steps to get the bigger picture and the retreat of democracy looks like a global rout. Here, for instance, is Nic Cheeseman’s and Jeffrey Smith’s take on Africa in Foreign Affairs:

In Tanzania, President John Magufuli has clamped down on the opposition and censored the media. His Zambian counterpart, President Edgar Lungu, recently arrested the main opposition leader on trumped-up charges of treason and is seeking to extend his stay in power to a third term. This reflects a broader trend. According to Freedom House, a think tank, just 11 percent of the continent is politically “free,” and the average level of democracy, understood as respect for political rights and civil liberties, fell in each of the last 14 years.

Or let’s take a look at Southeast Asia, courtesy of Josh Kurlantzick:

Cambodia’s government transformed from an autocratic regime where there was still some (minimal) space for opposition parties into a fully one-party regime. Thailand’s junta continued to repress the population, attempting to control the run-up to elections still planned in February 2019. The Myanmar government continued to stonewall a real investigation into the alleged crimes against humanity in Rakhine State, despite significant international pressure to allow an investigation. And even in Indonesia, one of the freest states in the region, the Jokowi government has given off worrying signs of increasingly authoritarian tendencies.

Or how about this assessment of Latin America from The Washington Post last year (before the Brazilian election):

Brazil is not the only Latin American country with troubled politics. Democracy has collapsed in Nicaragua and Venezuela and is in serious trouble in countries such as Bolivia and Honduras. In El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras and Mexico, just as in Brazil, criminal organizations rule the poorer parts of many cities, weakening democracy and undermining the rule of law.

Waves, of course, go both ways. And the fourth democratic tide definitely seems to be going in the wrong direction.

The 2019 Freedom House report, entitled “Democracy in Retreat,” chronicles 13 years of decline. The V-Dem Institute in Sweden, in its 2019 report on the state of global democracy, identifies a “third wave of autocratization” affecting 24 countries (including the United States). The Economist Intelligence Unit is somewhat more optimistic, arguing that “the retreat of global democracy ended in 2018.”

But all the threats itemized in the Unit’s actual report are a reminder that this optimism stems from the fact that the terrible state of democracy didn’t get demonstrably worse last year. And, the report concludes, the decline must just have paused last year before continuing on its dismal trajectory.

Democracy’s Dial-Up Dilemma

I’ve written extensively about how Donald Trump has undermined U.S. democracy with his rhetoric, his appointments, his attacks on the press, his executive actions, his self-serving financial decisions, and so on. I’ve connected the attacks on democracy in the United States to trends toward autocracy in East-Central Europe from the 1990s onward. I’ve compared Trump’s politics to the majoritarian aspirations of Narendra Modi in India, Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia, and Vladimir Putin in Russia.

Maybe it’s a positive sign that an outsider won the 2016 elections (putting aside Russian interference for the moment). If Donald Trump can do it, so perhaps can Bernie Sanders or the Green Party. Another politics is indeed possible. But everything else about Trump is profoundly anti-democratic.

Worse, he’s part of a more general trend.

Democracy’s troubles do not simply result from generals seizing power (as in Thailand or Egypt), undemocratic rulers consolidating power (like Xi Jinping in China), or illiberal leaders weakening the institutions of democratic governance (like Victor Orban in Hungary, Daniel Ortega in Nicaragua, Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey, or Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines).

In other words, democracy’s discontents are not solely external to democracy itself. There’s a deeper vein of popular dissatisfaction. According to Pew research from 2018, a majority of people (out of 27 at least formally democratic countries polled) are dissatisfied with democracy. And for good reason. They are disgusted with the corruption of elected leaders. They are unhappy with economic policies that continue to widen the gap between rich and poor. They are fed up with politicians for not responding with sufficient urgency to global problems like climate change or refugees.

Here’s an equally disturbing possibility. Even in the so-called advanced democracies, the political software has become outdated, full of bugs, susceptible to hacking. Put simply, democracy requires a thorough update to deal with the tasks at hand.

So, for instance, democratic institutions have failed to get a handle on the flow of capital, licit and illicit, that forms the circulatory system of the global economy. The corruption outlined in the Panama Papers, the Russian laundromat, and the Odebrecht scandal, among others, reveal just how weak the checks and balances of democracy have been. Watchdog institutions — media, inter-governmental authorities — have been playing catch up as the financial world devises new instruments to “create” wealth and criminals come up with new scams to steal wealth.

The Internet and social media have been hailed as great opportunities for democracy. States can use electronic referenda to encourage greater civic participation. Democracy activists can use Twitter to organize protests at the drop of a hashtag. But the speed of new technologies also establishes certain expectations in the electorate. Citizens expect lightning fast responses from their email, texts, web searches, and streaming services. But government seems stuck in the dial-up age. It takes forever to get legislation passed. The lines at social service centers are long and frustrating.

In some cases, the slowness of government response is more than just irritating.

The last IPCC report suggests that the world has only a dozen years to deal with climate change before it’s too late. All of the patient diplomacy of states leading up to the Paris climate deal, which itself was an insufficient response to the crisis, was then undone by the results of… American democracy.

It’s no surprise, then, that voters have gravitated toward right-wing politicians who promise fast results and easy solutions, however illusory those might be. In other words, these leaders have the opposite appeal of democracy, which is so often slow and messy. Right-wing populists are disruptive technologies that destroy existing structures. That’s why I’ve called populist leaders “disruptors in chief.”

There are no instruction manuals on how to fix hardware and software simultaneously, on how to address climate change at the same time as fixing the political systems that have hitherto failed to tackle the problem. But democracy definitely needs a reboot. Right-wing populists have offered their illiberal fix. Despite the hype, those “solutions” aren’t working, not on climate change, not on refugees, not on trade, not on international disputes with Iran, North Korea, or Venezuela.

So, now it’s time for the rest of us to roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, June 12, 2019

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The Dictator and the Nihilist

Two major public figures lost their protected status last week.

British authorities dragged Julian Assange, the co-founder of Wikileaks, out of the Ecuadorian consulate and into custody. Meanwhile, months of public protests finally dislodged Omar al-Bashir, the long-serving authoritarian leader of Sudan.

On the face of it, Assange and Bashir couldn’t be more different. Bashir presided over a tyrannical state that waged genocidal war and kept tight control over information. Assange, on the other hand, used the medium of the Internet to leak information that exposed abuses of power and challenged official versions of war.

Yet the two shared an underlying commonality: lack of accountability. This trait proved to be their ultimate undoing.

The Little Tyrant

Julian Assange stands accused of two separate types of crime. He originally took refuge in the Ecuadorian embassy in 2012 to avoid extradition to Sweden, where he faced charges of sexual assault and rape. During his stay in the embassy, one charge ran out because of the statute of limitations. Now that Assange is extraditable, the Swedish authorities can revive the second charge, which doesn’t expire until 2020.

But Assange has also been in the crosshairs of the U.S. authorities ever since he released a trove of information in 2010, courtesy of whistleblower Chelsea Manning, about U.S. military conduct in Afghanistan and Iraq. The specific charge for which Washington wants Assange extradited to stand trial is connected to this whistleblowing, but only peripherally. The indictment reads:

On or about March 8, 2010, Assange agreed to assist Manning in cracking a password stored on United States Department of Defense Computers connected to the Secret Internet Protocol Network, a United States government network used for classified documents and communications.

To get around the five-year statute of limitations on hacking, which expired some time ago, the United States is charging Assange with an act of terrorism.

So, Assange stands accused of a criminal act: hacking, not publishing. This isn’t, in other words, a First Amendment issue. On the other hand, the U.S. case is very thin indeed. Terrorism? Hardly. And there’s no evidence that Assange actually engaged in the alleged hacking, though hacking certainly played an instrumental role in his earlier life in Australia.

Assange shouldn’t be extradited to the United States where the government might expand the inquiry and turn the man into a First Amendment martyr. He should, however, face his accusers in Sweden.

By most standards, Assange is a thoroughly unpleasant fellow. “He was an unstable figure who was an unfortunate avatar for press freedom,” observes Alex Gibney, the director of the documentary We Steal Secrets: The Story of WikiLeaks. “I think instinctively, he was always kind of a renegade and also a narcissist, and self-serving and mendacious.”

Paranoid and domineering, Assange once told his erstwhile Wikileaks partner, Daniel Domscheit-Berg, “If you fuck up, I’ll hunt you down and kill you.” Sequestered inside the Ecuadorian embassy for nearly seven years, Assange was, to the say the least, a boorish guest: fighting with his hosts, treating the place as if he owned it, and breaking the rules of his stay by continuing to run his political operations (including his interventions on behalf of Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential elections).

A jerk, a hacker, possibly a rapist: these all suggest that Julian Assange believes that the normal rules of society don’t apply to him. It’s hard to understand why he became a hero of the left simply because he published materials that put the U.S. military in the worst light possible. It’s even harder to understand why he remains a hero for a diminishing sliver of the left after his hatred of Hillary Clinton pushed him to do whatever he could to support Trump’s political ambitions.

Assange doesn’t care about politics. He doesn’t even care about transparency. He’ll align with the most non-transparent state and individuals (Russia, Trump) to pursue his own personal grudges. In the case of his work on behalf of Trump, his motives were even more opportunistic: a potential pardon.

But what makes Assange particularly detestable is his complete lack of accountability. He is an anarchist — not in the precise political sense of a follower of Bakunin or Bookchin, but in his preference for the destruction of the established order. He will do whatever he can to undermine order, whether that order is legitimate or illegitimate. He is sometimes described as a libertarian because of his defense of civil liberties and admiration for Ron and Rand Paul. But, frankly, Assange is just interested in his own liberty, his own freedom to do what he wants. He’s even more of a nihilist than Trump, for he has no idea of what should replace the status quo he so despises.

When Daniel Ellsberg and Edward Snowden made the decision to declassify government documents, they did so with the help, support, and counsel of journalists. In other words, they submitted to the accountability mechanisms of the newspaper world — fact-checkers, lawyers, national security experts.

Assange did no such thing. He dumped everything into the public realm uncurated. The material could be wrong. It could be weaponized. It could hurt ongoing peace negotiations. Assange didn’t care. Wikileaks, with its disregard for normal journalism practices, has contributed greatly to the spread of “fake news,” of conspiracy theories, of contempt for media outlets like CNN. In some cases, as with the allegation that DNC staffer Seth Rich was the source of the Democratic Party hacks, Assange directly provided grist for the rumor mill that has increasingly replaced journalism.

This, then, is Assange’s greatest sin. He acts like a tyrant, though he controls no state and no territory. Perhaps he will be found guilty in a court of law in Sweden and go to jail. Otherwise, being an unaccountable jerk is not a crime. For his sins, I’d just be happy to see Assange consigned to obscurity.

The Big Tyrant

Omar al-Bashir had a nearly 30-year reign over Sudan. He aspired to exert totalitarian control over this North African country by banishing civil society and eradicating rival political forces. He continued a devastating civil war with the southern part of the country and started a genocidal conflict with the Darfur region. In a desperate bid to win favor with the United States, he cooperated with George W. Bush’s global war on terrorism.

None of this prevented a final reckoning at the hands of the Sudanese people themselves.

There are many reasons why the Sudanese rose up against their ruler. The economy, for instance, is in terrible shape. This is the result of mismanagement, corruption, and the loss of significant oil revenues when South Sudan became independent and took control of the vast majority of oil production.

Even the lifting in 2017 of most U.S. sanctions against Khartoum — in an effort to enlist Sudan’s help in further isolating North Korea — didn’t seem to help, as the inflation rate rose to 70 percent in 2018. Another round of price increases for food sparked protests last December. Meanwhile, as was the case in all of the Arab Spring countries, the youth unemployment rate in Sudan has been inordinately high, hovering around 27 percent for years.

Sudan has also been at war for much of its post-colonial existence: two civil wars, an internal conflict in Darfur, and, for the last few years, participation in the Saudi-led war in Yemen where Sudan has sent as many as 14,000 soldiers. Most of these fighters have come from Darfur where, as part of the Janjaweed militia, they were largely responsible for the genocide there. Hundreds of these soldiers have died in Yemen. Given the high costs and the minimal benefits of this military campaign, members of the Sudanese parliament last year began questioning the country’s participation.

Bashir’s lack of accountability plays a major part in all this. Although Sudan has held multi-party elections since 2010, the ruling party has used the machinery of the state to maintain its grip on power, freezing out the opposition and ensuring that the Sudanese people have little to no say in political affairs.

Even in the face of gross human rights violations in Darfur, Bashir managed to evade the mechanisms of international accountability. Until recently, Bashir was the only sitting world leader wanted by the International Criminal Court for genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Under some circumstances, a population might be expected to rally around a leader stigmatized by the international community, as Russians have maintained their support for Vladimir Putin. But Bashir’s crimes were against his own people. No surprise they wanted him out.

The protesters in Sudan hold more than just Bashir accountable. The actual force behind Bashir’s ouster was the military, a least a portion of which squared off against the security police in defense of the protesters.

But the protesters have not wanted a military dictatorship to replace Bashir’s personal dictatorship. They’ve called for the “full dissolution of the deep state.” Whether because of public pressure or internal division, the leader of the transitional military council resigned after only one day on the job. The head of the security forces, Salah Gosh, was next to step down.

Meanwhile, negotiations between the military and the protesters have resulted in the release of political prisoners, the barring of the former ruling party from any transitional government, and a pledge that civilians will serve as prime minister and the head of all ministries aside from the ministries of defense and interior.

Just as Assange should head to Sweden, Bashir should travel to the Hague to face justice. The transitional council has insisted on putting Bashir on trial in Sudan, though a civilian government might overrule that decision. The former dictator is now sitting in Kobar prison, where he once sent those who opposed his reign.

The Consequences of Accountability

The aging leaders of Algeria and Sudan are now deposed. There is talk of another Arab Spring in the region. But a repeat of 2011 is not likely given the hold on power that Mohammed bin Salman has in Saudi Arabia, the victory of Benjamin Netanyahu in the recent Israel elections, the way Bashar al-Assad has clung to his position in Syria, and the brutality with which Abdel Fattah al-Sisi has enforced his reign in Egypt. The United States stands firmly behind Saudi Arabia, Israel, and Egypt. Russia and Iran back Assad. In the short term, let’s hope that both Algeria and Sudan simply avoid the fate of Libya, namely horrific civil war.

If the United States changes its Middle East policy and stops supporting dictatorships and right-wing leaders, then a real wave of accountability could sweep through the region. But that depends on what happens in the 2020 elections.

In other words, American voters not only can hold the Trump administration accountable in 2020 by voting it out and even putting some of its top officials on trial. They can lay the groundwork for a rehabilitation of the national mechanisms of accountability (like the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau that Trump is dismantling) as well as the international mechanisms (like the International Criminal Court that Trump has attacked). And they can elect politicians who have zero tolerance for unaccountable leaders in the Middle East and elsewhere around the world.

Whistleblowers and protesters play a key role in ensuring accountability. But ultimately, democratic systems should be built to ensure institutional accountability. That’s what the protesters in Sudan so desperately want in the wake of Omar Bashir. That’s what nihilists like Julian Assange, in their hatred of government, so cavalierly dismiss.

Perhaps the departure of Bashir and Assange will signal a new wave of accountability that will eventually reach the shores of the United States as well — in time to drain the swamp in 2020.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, April 17, 2019

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World Gives America One Year to Stop Trump or Face Sanctions

The deputy assistant under secretary general of the United Nations has given the United States a one-year warning. If the country doesn’t clean up its act and become a responsible world citizen, Ithell Colhoquon announced yesterday, the international community will impose sanctions on U.S. government officials and tariffs on U.S. goods and services.

This announcement comes shortly after U.S. President Donald Trump told Mexico that it had one year to stop the flow of illegal drugs into the United States or face the shutdown of the southern border.

When asked what precipitated the international community’s sudden threat to sanction the United States, Colhoquon said, “The ICC decision. That was a line in the sand. That really demonstrated beyond a doubt that the United States is a rogue nation.”

Colhoquon was referring to Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s denunciation of the International Criminal Court for “attacking America’s rule of law.” The Trump administration has followed up by revoking a visa for an ICC prosecutor looking into possible U.S. war crimes in Afghanistan. The administration has also threatened to arrest and prosecute ICC officials.

“If we could kick the United States out of the ICC, we would do so,” said ICC Third Vice President Elena Ferrante. “But it has always considered itself above the law — and above the ICC.”

Mexico and Canada have applauded the UN decision. Both countries have vowed to close their borders with the United States if the international community’s demands are not met.

Mexico has a wide range of complaints concerning U.S. policy, including the treatment of Mexican nationals, the dumping of U.S. products, and the unregulated trade in U.S. firearms. It has also complained about the enormous market for drugs in the United States, which has transformed Mexican narcotrafficking into an international force.

“Also, we don’t like college students coming down here on spring break,” Mexican Vice President Roberto Bolano recently said. “Every spring we have to deal with a caravan of loud, lazy, good-for-nothing gang members, and we’re tired of it!”

Canada has gone further by declaring the United States a failed state. Canadian President Marie-Claire Blais points to the murder rate in major cities, the opioid epidemic, the crumbling infrastructure, the endemic corruption, the huge gulf between rich and poor, and the authoritarian leadership.

“Sure, we all like our iPhones and Starbucks coffee,” Blais says, “but we can’t let this kind of social chaos spread like bird flu into our country.”

Although the Trump administration has not made any official comments on these recent developments, the U.S. president has been busy on Twitter.

“Everyone at UN is ugly and fat,” he tweeted. “Everyone in Mexico is ugly and stupid. Everyone in Canada smells bad and talks funny. Sad!”

Several countries have rallied behind the United States: Saudi Arabia, Russia, Hungary, North Korea, South Ossetia, the Canary Islands.

“Of course we have to speak up on behalf of the American president,” said Russian Vice Prime Minister Alexander Fadeyev. “You know the famous poem, yes? First they come for the human rights violators. And we say nothing. Then they come for the war criminals. And we say nothing. Then they come for the autocrats. And we still say nothing. So, when they come for us, who will be left to protest?”

When pressed about the actions the United States needs to take in order to return to the good graces of the international community, the UN’s Ithell Colhoquon was very specific. “The removal of Donald Trump is a necessary but not sufficient condition. Mike Pence is just as bad if not worse. So, we recommend that, after a series of public trials, Americans sentence all top-ranking officials of the Trump administration to a decade of community service picking up trash along America’s highways. Oh, and they should be forced to wear pink jumpsuits. Balls and chains would also be a nice touch.”

Response from the American public has been mixed.

“We’re not going to let a bunch of furriners tell us what to do in our own country,” said MAGA Stewart, the president of the Hands Off Trump coalition. As part of their commitment to the president, the members of the coalition have all changed their first names to Make America Great Again, or MAGA for short.

“Sovereignty is a cornerstone of American democracy,” opined Charles Coughlin, a constitutional law professor at the Antonin Scalia Law School at George Mason University. “We can tell other countries what to do, but it’s not a two-way street. In American jurisprudence, we call this the ‘one-way-street principle,’ though it’s also known more colloquially as hypocrisy.”

Support for the UN move, however, could be seen from satellite photographs. In fields and public parks across the United States on Tuesday at noon, Americans lay down to form letters with their bodies to spell out: “Thank you, UN!”

It’s unclear what will happen next in this standoff between the United States and the international community. Several countries have already withdrawn recognition of the Trump government and recognized Nancy Pelosi instead as the legitimate leader of the country. New Zealand has declared that, in the unlikely event that Donald Trump sets foot in the country, he will be immediately charged with crimes against intelligence.

But in perhaps the most significant sign that the international threats are having an effect, Twitter announced that it will suspend President Trump’s account. “Look, I just took the car keys away from my 99-year-old father,” one unnamed Twitter executive said. “Sometimes you just have to do the right thing to make the world a safer place.”

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, April 10, 2019

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Trump’s Only Electoral Strategy Was Racism

In the week before the mid-term elections, Donald Trump returned to his bread-and-butter issue: immigration.

He knows that the only thing that will turn out his base, and possibly swing some independents over to his side, is fear. Economic indicators are in reasonably good shape (for now). Hillary Clinton is nowhere near power (for now). He can’t use the threat of North Korea’s nuclear weapons because he’s already told Americans after the Singapore summit that they can sleep soundly (for now).

Ah, but a caravan of poor migrants, many of them women and children, fleeing violence and poverty — now that’s a threat.

It’s such a threat, in fact, that Trump announced that he will send as many as 15,000 U.S. troops to the border beginning this week. That’s about the same number of U.S. soldiers currently in Afghanistan. And the new deployment doesn’t count the border patrol and ICE personnel already positioned across from Mexico. The estimated cost of Trump’s plan is $200-$300 million, on top of the nearly $200 million in costs for dispatching the National Guard in May.

The caravan poses such a threat that Trump initially told the military that it should fire at anyone who throws a rock. “Consider it a rifle,” the president said. “When they throw rocks like they did at the Mexico military police, consider it a rifle.” Now, that might be how things are done in Israel, where the military has killed a number of people at the border with Gaza (with or without stones). But the U.S. military has responded that it operates according to the principle of proportional response. Rocks don’t equal bullets.

The caravan is such a threat that Trump’s political team put together a campaign ad that spuriously linked the murderer of a cop to the migrants fleeing violence. It ended with the message “Stop the caravan. Vote Republican.” The ad was so offensive that even Fox News refused to run it. NBC initially aired the ad, then had a change of heart and said it wouldn’t do so again. Trump personally pushed for this ad over the objections of aides who thought that a more upbeat message about the economy would be a better note on which to end the mid-term election campaign.

The caravan is such a threat that Trump made up ever more extravagant lies about it. At one point, he asserted that it contained mysterious Middle Easterners (it doesn’t). He claimed that Salvadoran gang members were part of the group (they aren’t). He accused the Democrats of wanting the caravan (they don’t). Then he said that the Democrats were inviting caravan after caravan to the United States (they aren’t).

Trump’s deliberate fabrications obscured the sad reality of the caravan. As Adam Serwer writes in The Atlantic:

In reality, the caravan was thousands of miles and weeks away from the U.S. border, shrinking in size, and unlikely to reach the U.S. before the election. If the migrants reach the U.S., they have the right under U.S. law to apply for asylum at a port of entry. If their claims are not accepted, they will be turned away. There is no national emergency; there is no ominous threat. There is only a group of desperate people looking for a better life, who have a right to request asylum in the United States and have no right to stay if their claims are rejected.

Trump’s attacks on the caravan are part of a larger effort to use immigration as the defining issue of his presidency. It’s his version of the Communist threat, which was not just about Soviet nukes but also the presumed infiltration of American society.

Immigrants serve that same dual purpose of mobilizing Americans against alleged threats both inside and outside America’s borders. In Trump’s distorted worldview, immigrants are not just massing on the other side of the Rio Grande but they’re already on the inside killing innocent civilians, taking jobs away from American workers, and creating dangerous gangs to destroy the fabric of society. For a president fixated on portraying politics in apocalyptic terms, the immigration issue is the perfect weapon.

So, for instance, the immigration issue produced the most provocative image of the 2016 campaign: the Wall. It generated the most incendiary issue of the first months of Trump’s presidency: the travel ban. The second year of his presidency was marked by the controversy over the separation of families at the border. And Trump has once again returned to the topic by attacking the caravan and broaching the possibility of ending birthright citizenship.

It is a deliberately polarizing strategy — to unify Trump’s base against the rest of the country.

According to Gallup polling in October, immigration ranked as the second most important issue for Republicans, just a hair behind the economy, and second highest for all eligible voters. It’s a strategy deliberately crafted to drive a wedge right into the immigrant community itself — with some older immigrants standing with the president against undocumented workers and some Asian Americans siding with the Republican Party on its anti-affirmative-action stance.

On the eve of the elections, it didn’t appear to be a winning strategy. According to pollsters Peter Enns and Jonathon Schuldt, Trump’s attacks on the caravans had no statistical impact on voting preferences by the end of October. Nor did it seem to motivate his Republican base to turn out. It didn’t even seem to make likely voters more anti-immigrant. Democrats, at least in House races, were having more luck persuading voters with their emphasis on health care.

But even if immigration didn’t prove effective nationwide as an electoral strategy, it does seem to have impact on a local level. In Arizona, for instance, immigration is a top issue. If Republican Martha McSally preserves her narrow lead over Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in the Arizona Senate race, the Republican’s hardline immigration position may have been the deciding factor. On the other hand, Republican David Brat used immigration as a key issue to win an upset victory four years ago against House Majority Leader Eric Cantor. In yesterday’s election, he lost a nail biter to Democrat Abigail Spanberger. In the Virginia suburbs at least, health care proved to be more of a motivating issue than immigration.

But Trump isn’t thinking just about the mid-term elections. He wants to create an atmosphere of chaos and panic that allows him to act more forcefully (sending troops), speak more rashly (terrorists are coming!), and present himself as the country’s savior (apres moi, le deluge). He’s a grandstanding nationalist who has finally found his calling: to preserve white dominance in the United States and prevent the country from becoming part of a multicultural world.

It’s also a patently racist strategy, though Trump himself doesn’t care what color you are as long as you show absolute loyalty to him. It’s racist not only because of the anti-immigrant animus that it generates. It’s racist because the only way Trump and the GOP can win is through racial gerrymandering and voter suppression in non-white communities.

The mid-terms are over. The Democrats have regained the House and lost ground in the Senate. It’s going to be messy here in Washington as the partisan battles intensify.

But the administration’s game plan is clear for the next two years. Trump has found the one issue that can unify his domestic and foreign policies. The caravan is only the latest example of the president’s efforts to use fear and racism to galvanize his base. By 2020, voters will be deciding not just who occupies the White House. They’ll be voting on what it means to be an American.

Foreign Policy In Focus, November 7, 2018

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#MeToo Goes Global

The famous tenor Enrico Caruso went on trial in 1906 for an incident at the monkey house in Central Park. He was accused of the indecent assault of 30-year-old Hannah Graham. Caruso in turn accused one of the monkeys of pinching the victim’s rear end. Other accusations of sexual harassment emerged at the trial. The newspapers called the singer “an Italian pervert.” He was found guilty and fined $10.

There were rumors that the Monkey House incident was a set up, largely because the arresting police officer and Ms. Graham knew each other. But that wasn’t the whole story either. New Yorker writer A. J. Liebling supplies the coda: “Thirty years later I was to learn that it was a press agent’s trick, put up to attract attention to the tenor’s appearance in a new role, Rodolfo in La Boheme.”

Though several generations separate the two men, it’s not difficult to draw a line connecting Caruso and Donald Trump, both of them entertainers, both of them believing that a hint of sexual aggression enhanced their reputations. Caruso let others do the dirty work while Trump pretended to be his own press agent and later amplified his boasts on the Howard Stern show. It’s remarkable — and infuriating — that this frat-house sensibility has survived the rise of feminism, the transformation of the workplace, and the reshaping of culture.

Then came the Access Hollywood tape, in which Donald Trump revealed his Viking mindset to host Billy Bush. The conversation took place in 2005, but it wasn’t released until October 7, 2016. Trump’s behavior toward women wasn’t well publicized at that point, despite a 1997 suit for nonviolent sexual harassment, a rape charge (later retracted) by former wife Ivana Trump, and a detailed New York Times article the previous spring. News of the tape spread to every corner of the globe. It should have been the final nail in Trump’s electoral coffin.

Instead, Trump lied, apologized, and bluffed his way through the crisis. He won the election, with an astounding number of people giving the candidate a pass for his multiple transgressions. It looked as though Trump, like Caruso more than 100 years before, emerged from the scandal unscathed and, in some people’s eyes, stronger because of it.

Ah, but not quite.

Trump’s atrocious conduct encouraged 19 women to step forward and tell their own stories of what the businessman did to them. The women’s marches, the determination of more women to run for political office, the more widespread discussion of sexual harassment: all of this followed Trump’s upset victory. It culminated one year after the tape came out with the fall of Harvey Weinstein and an outpouring of stories from women (and a few men) who experienced sexual harassment or worse.

The #MeToo movement did what decades of liberal handwringing had failed to do: dislodge a good number of powerful men on the basis of their woeful (and in some cases criminal) misconduct: Matt Lauer, Kevin Spacey, Charlie Rose, Mario Batali, and many more.

Of course, there have been limitations to the movement. It could have happened a decade earlier, when African American activist Tarana Burke created basically the same project with the same name. It could address race and class more squarely. It could embrace a larger and more systemic critique. But still, this is how sea changes begin.

Such a change won’t happen overnight, and certainly not with Donald Trump still president. He even believes that he can run for reelection. And, of course, he has no compunction about nominating another representative of frat culture, Brett Kavanaugh, to the Supreme Court.

If the Access Hollywood tape represented the beginning of the end of this frat culture, perhaps this confirmation battle will mark the end of the beginning, a powerful sign that the #MeToo movement is making concrete changes in power relations in U.S. society. Congress nodded in 1991 when it confirmed Clarence Thomas to replace Thurgood Marshall on the Supreme Court despite Anita Hill’s courageous testimony. Today, it has a chance to prove that it has woken up.

But, of course, the sea change is not just about the United States.

#MeToo Globally

It’s thrilling when social movements in the United States spread globally and intersect with comparable activism in other countries. This has been the case for the U.S. civil rights movement as well as the more recent Black Lives Matter movement.

#MeToo is less than a year old, but it has spread very quickly. Indeed, the hashtag generated its equivalent in several other languages within a few hours of actress Alyssa Milano’s tweet urging women to tell their stories. The hashtag is now being used in at least 85 countries. Most of the hashtags are just translations of “me too,” but there are several interesting variations: #exposeyourpig (France), #thetimethat (Italy), and #whenthemusicquiets (Norway).

Numerous high-profile truth-telling episodes have taken place. In Japan, journalist Shiori Ito revealed her own story of rape, which is making it possible for Japanese women finally to end the cultural conspiracy of silence around violence against women. In the UK, a series of accusations have upended Westminster, and an internal report earlier this year indicated that one in five people working in the government had experienced sexual harassment in the past 12 months. In Brazil, the movement had a head start when the Portuguese version of #Myfirstharrassment drew enormous media attention in 2015 and spread throughout Latin America.

Because of widespread rape and sex trafficking, India is the most dangerous place in the world to be a woman, according to a recent Thomson Reuters Foundation ranking. Rapes of children have reached epidemic proportions, doubling between 2012 and 2016. But women have been organizing and protesting against these crimes as well as against the sexual harassment that goes under the misleadingly benign label of “eve-teasing.” In a country where only one-quarter of the population uses the Internet, a hashtag movement can only go so far.

There has been, inevitably, backlash. Some have decried the imposition of “American” attitudes. “I wish it hadn’t started in the U.S.,” Anne Marie Goetz, a professor of global affairs at New York University and a former United Nations adviser on women’s issues, told NBC. “The fastest way to discredit any women’s rights struggle is to say it comes from somewhere else.”

It’s not just feudalistic societies led by men that have pushed back against the spread of #MeToo. In France, a hundred prominent women including actress Catherine Deneuve published an open letter in Le Monde claiming that #MeToo had gone too far, that it represented the puritanical and censorious attitudes typical of Americans.

There is certainly a puritanical and censorious strain in American culture — remember, a quarter of the population is evangelical Protestant — but the #Metoo movement is not about sex.

It’s about power.

Correcting the Power Imbalance

Much has changed in social attitudes, worldwide, about male-female relations. There is greater equality, but there are still gaps. For instance in the United States, women earn only 82 percent of what men earn in comparable jobs. And there is still a gap in who occupies powerful positions.

If you look at the graph of the proportion of women in parliament around the world, it’s a reassuring arrow heading off the chart at a 90-degree angle. There’s been steady improvement since 1997 when the level stood at 11 percent. In 2017, the figure had improved to 23 percent. It’s not gender parity, but it’s definitely progress.

The global figure is also a bit better than what women have achieved in the United States: 20 percent of Congress in 2018. There’s a good chance that #MeToo plus #NotMyPresident will combine to push those numbers up after the midterm elections so that the United States can be average rather than low-performing.

In only two countries in the world do more women than men serve in parliament: Rwanda (61 percent) and Bolivia (53 percent). Cuba and Iceland come close at 49 percent and 48 percent respectively. At 3 percent or under, the Pacific islands (Vanuatu, Micronesia, Solomon Islands) and the Gulf States (Qatar, Oman, Kuwait) have a long way to go.

In the judiciary, women do a bit better, at least in the wealthier nations. According to Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development figures, 54 percent of professional judges in OECD member countries are women, with Slovenia, Latvia, and Greece leading the pack. Approximately one out of three Supreme Court justices are women.

Again, the United States does poorly, with only 36 percent of judges at the federal level being women. The “gavel gap” at the state level is roughly the same, with only 33 percent of judges being women. Currently, the U.S. Supreme Court has the same percentage: three women and six men.

It’s not that I think women naturally do a better job as politicians or judges. But I do think that gender parity ensures that people in power don’t slight women’s concerns. And, if the women are feminists, then they bring with them a different conception of power — power with rather than power over. And that can generate institution-wide change.

Alpha Males

I went to a liberal Quaker college back in the 1980s. It had become a co-ed institution the year before I arrived. I chose the school in part because it didn’t have fraternities. I was naïve enough to believe that the absence of frats meant the absence of frat-house behavior.

During that first year of co-education, a young woman was gang-raped in a dorm. The college administration did a very poor job of dealing with the issue. The young woman dropped out; the perpetrators had their hands slapped. The college tried to pretend the incident never happened. After all, such a thing shouldn’t happen at such a liberal, tolerant place.

Over the last 50 years, the women’s movement has scored many, many victories. Women in large numbers have entered universities, workplaces, and political office. They have broken through many glass ceilings. Quite a few old boy’s clubs have been opened up and aired out.

Many men have not adjusted well to these changes. Their workplaces are no longer all-male, but they have persisted with their frat-house mentality. Often the men at the top establish the pattern. Just like non-human primates, men will take their cues from the alpha male. The laws have changed, the explicit rules are non-sexist, but some attitudes harken back to earlier times.

It’s the responsibility of institutions to sanction frat-house behavior, establish safe and dignified work environments, and send a different set of messages about how people with power should act. My college failed to do that when it became coeducational. It took a great deal of protest and organizing by students to turn that around. As with human rights abuses around the world, it required naming and shaming.

The same kind of protest and organizing — by #MeToo and many others — is needed now to block the alpha male in the White House and his attempt to bring fraternity rules back to the center of American society. He’s big man on campus now, just like Bill Cosby once was.

But soon, I hope to see him expelled and stripped of his honors. And the frat-house mentality that still lurks in various pockets of American culture destroyed once and for all.

Foreign Policy In Focus, September 26, 2018

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The Best of All Possible Worlds?

Candide is the first and most amusing example of the powerlessness of positive thinking.

In this 18th century novel by Voltaire, the naïf Candide suffers one misfortunate after another – kidnapping, torture, earthquake. Still he adheres to the philosophy of his mentor, Dr. Pangloss, who insists that all is for the best in this best of all possible worlds. Never has there been such a mismatch between philosophy and facts on the ground. Only at the end does the chastened Candide reject the Panglossian worldview, adopt some measure of realism, and narrow his focus to cultivating his own garden.

Donald Trump is the anti-Pangloss. Even as he personally enjoys all the perks of being a billionaire and a president, he constantly reminds Americans that they face the worst of all possible worlds. As Trump pointed out in his inaugural address, America is a land of “carnage,” thanks to the policies of his predecessors. The world beyond America’s borders is scarier still and requires walls, travel bans, and even a new branch of the military to patrol space. Trump promises to make America great again, but the “deep state,” the fake media, liberal Hollywood, and Lebron James are preventing him from doing so.

About one-third of America believes in Trump’s dystopian vision of the world. Everybody else believes that Trump himself is dystopia incarnate.

Even if you take Trump out of the picture (please!), it still seems as though the world is lurching from one tragedy to another: financial crisis, rising temperatures, super storms, horrific wars, peak refugees, another Ebola outbreak, failed states, rampant corruption, political and economic polarization.

Who on earth could possibly think that this is the best of all possible worlds?

Well, Steven Pinker, for one.

Enlightenment Now

Six years ago, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker argued that, contrary to conventional wisdom, violence is on the decline: fewer people dying in war, in dictatorships, in criminal acts, even in disputes at home. He made a powerful case, though he slighted the violence committed by democratic states and by business. As I wrote in my review of his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature:

Pinker is an Enlightenment liberal, and he lavishly praises “civilization” throughout his book. He seems to have forgotten that “civilization” often replaces one type of violence with another. The violence of the civilizing empire, the violence of the civilizing state, and the violence of the civilizing economy push aside more localized violence. The different tribes of Native Americans didn’t exactly live in harmony before 1492, but the bringing of “civilization” to the natives raised the magnitude of violence from skirmishes to genocide. We can acknowledge the overall reduction of violence over the centuries even as we remain clear-eyed about the wages of civilization.

Pinker is back and this time with a full-throated defense of the Enlightenment and its version of civilization. He is expanding his argument about violence to argue that everything is getting better. In Enlightenment Now, he laments that our noses are too close to life’s grindstone to see this bigger picture.

Pinker marshals a good deal of evidence to back up his claim. Life expectancy has gone up. Extreme poverty has gone down. Scientific advances have made life easier. Liberal values of tolerance have become more widespread. The air, water, and soil have gotten cleaner (at least since the Industrial Revolution). Oh, and yes, violence has decreased.

Everything else is a blip, according to Pinker. The current threats to Enlightenment values – Trump, Putin, climate denial, the narcissistic super-rich, al-Qaeda and the Islamic State – all these will pass. Pinker is not that much different from an early twentieth-century Marxist who believed that history would necessarily produce a radiant future. It just needs a little push in the right direction.

Ah, if only it were so.

Environmental Blind Spot

I imagine that there was a Steven Pinker in every past society on the verge of extinction. The Mayan Steven Pinker told his compatriots that there was nothing to worry about. Sure, there’d been a little less rain over the years, but the Mayan Empire was nearly 700 years old and life had been getting better and better. Surely, the rains would come and things would pick up…

The Angkor Wat Steven Pinker would have been enthusiastic about the heavy monsoon rain that fell over the Khmer empire, particularly since he and his kin had just suffered through their own devastating drought. Sure, it looked as though these heavy rains were destroying the very infrastructure of empire, but they’d rebuild again, wouldn’t they, just as they always had?

The Roman Steven Pinker would have praised the great accomplishments of the empire and its spread of characteristically Roman values all over the world. Sure, there were some restive tribes that occasionally swept down from the north to sack a city or two. But it was impossible to imagine that the edifice of civilization would crumble at the hands of disgruntled barbarians…

Likewise, today’s Steven Pinker scants all the signs and portents of environmental unsustainability. He downplays resource depletion, species extinction, and most importantly, carbon emissions. He does so not only because they complicate his relentlessly cheerful vision of the future but also because these environmental problems are the byproduct of his treasured Enlightenment notions of progress.

The environmental crisis, in other words, forces a reevaluation of all the sacred cows of modernity. These problems can’t be Panglossed over. As Joshua Rothman puts it in The New Yorker: “Pinker could be right in the short term but wrong in the long term. Maybe the world is getting better, but not better enough, or in the right ways.”

Perception Is Everything

When I travelled throughout Eastern Europe in 2012-3 to understand why Enlightenment values were on the decline in that region, I was always asking people whether they thought, nearly 25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the glass was half-full or half-empty. The statistics suggested that they were better off: more prosperous, more democratic, healthier, more connected to the world at large.

And yet, many people in the region didn’t see it that way. Nearly half of Romanians, for instance, believed that life under Nicolae Ceausescu was better than at the time of their polling in 2014. Ceausescu! They somehow believed that life under one of the Communist bloc’s most repressive dictators was better than life within the European Union. Were they misremembering? Were they just thinking that life had been better when they were younger?

In some respects, of course, life had gotten worse in Romania. The media was full of news of corrupt politicians, widespread crime, poverty – which only reinforced what Pinker refers to as “negativity bias.” Moreover, many people in Romania were demonstrably well off, which created a great deal of resentment among those whose standard of living hadn’t budged much at all. And the spread of Enlightenment values of tolerance was generating a backlash among more conservative elements in society who were not thrilled about an annual Gay Pride parade.

Pinker would treat these perceptions as a mere speed bump. But perceptions, right or wrong, determine the outcome of elections, among other things. Illiberal leaders from Trump to Putin, in responding to (and reinforcing) such perceptions, offer a narrative for understanding why things fall apart. These storytellers can’t be wished away. They can’t be blithely disregarded simply because they’re not part of history’s progressive trajectory.

In a perceptive review in The Nation, David Bell puts his finger on another problem with Pinker’s worldview: his misreading of how social change happens.

Pinker seems to believe that progress has occurred almost by itself, as a result of whole populations spontaneously turning more enlightened and tolerant. “There really is a mysterious arc bending toward justice,” he writes. Almost entirely absent from the 576 pages of Enlightenment Now are the social movements that for centuries fought for equal rights, an end to slavery, improved working conditions, a minimum wage, the right to organize, basic social protections, a cleaner environment, and a host of other progressive causes. The arc bending toward justice is no mystery: It bends because people force it to bend.

Ultimately it doesn’t matter whether you think the glass is half-full or half-empty. The focus should be on filling the glass – on struggling to make life better for those who are not well off, harnessing technology to improve conditions for everyone, and saving the planet from climate catastrophe. Some of the Enlightenment tradition will be essential in this struggle. But an eighteenth-century philosophy, unmodified, cannot solve twenty-first century problems.

Pinker’s Panglossian narrative will not vanquish the forces of illiberalism. Saying that this is the best of all possible worlds does not make it so. Even a leading Enlightenment thinker like Voltaire would have been the first to tell the good professor that.

Foreign Policy In Focus, August 15, 2018

Categories
Articles Featured Human Rights

The Dictator Dating Game

Voiceover: Here’s the star of the show and your host, Steve Bannon!

Applause.

Steve Bannon: Thank you! It’s great to be back in the limelight. And welcome once again to the Dictator Dating Game. It’s time to meet our eligible dictators. And heeeeere they are!

Dictator number one is famous for all those great photos of him shirtless in the wilderness — riding horses, shooting bears, and threatening Ukrainians. He loves uncontested elections, poisoning his overseas enemies, and moonlit walks along the Crimean beach. Confidential tip: he’s been making eyes at our contestant for several years now. Meet…Vladimir Putin!

Applause.

Vladimir Putin: Thank you, Steve. But I’m not a dictator.

Steve Bannon: Aw, don’t be modest, Vlad! It doesn’t become you.

Dictator number two was born in 1983. He’s the adorable third-ever leader of his country. Maybe you’ve seen him giving on-the-spot guidance at the Kumsong Tractor Factory in Nampo. He loves killing members of his own family, maintaining absolute control over the political realm, and playing hide-and-seek with nuclear weapons. Confidential tip: he’s already been out on a date with our contestant and it went really well! Meet…Kim Jong Un!

Applause.

Kim Jong Un: Thank you, Mr. Steve Bannon. I am not a dictator either. I am the constitutional leader of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.

Steve Bannon: Glad to see that we share the same working definition of “democratic,” Chairman Kim.

Dictator number three was born in 1985, so he’s the puppy of the bunch. He’s not technically the head of his country, but he sure acts that way! He loves waging war on really, really poor countries, locking his country’s richest men in a hotel and extorting money from them, and magnanimously letting his citizens go to the cinema once in a while. Confidential tip: He’s been practically dating our contestant’s son-in-law, but now he wants to move to the next level. Meet…Mohammed bin Salman!

Applause.

Mohammed bin Salman: Yes, it’s true: I like Jared very much, but in Saudi Arabia we’re allowed to have as many as four wives.

Steve Bannon: Touche, MbS! Now, are you happy to see us or is that a Jared in your pocket? Sorry, I couldn’t resist…

Laughter.

So, those are our three eligible dictators. And it’s time now to meet our contestant, who has been wooing strongmen for six decades. And heeeeere he is!

This dear friend of mine is sure to make any dictator’s head spin. He’s got small hands, a monstrous ego, and a limited command of the English language. But none of that matters in the world of geopolitics. Today’s contestant has control over the most powerful nuclear arsenal in the world and likes to keep his opponents on their toes by coming up with completely new policies every hour on the hour! His hobbies include being mean, separating children from their families, and firing members of his own administration. Hey, no hard feelings on that last one!

Please welcome, Donald Trump!

Applause (mixed with boos).

Donald Trump: Good to see you again, Steve. You are living proof that I can treat people like dirt and they’ll still kiss my ass.

Steve Bannon: That’s power for you — and why we all want it! Now, tell us a little bit about why you wanted to be on the show tonight.

Donald Trump: As you know, Steve, I’m not a dictator. I was elected by the vast majority of the American people —

Steve Bannon: Actually, you lost the popular vote.

Donald Trump: Heya Sloppy Steve, am I going to have to fire you a second time?

Laughter.

Steve Bannon: My bad! Sorry to interrupt…

Donald Trump: I’m not a dictator, but I very much admire dictators. No elections, just campaigns. No interfering judges or legislators. The adulation of the people. That’s a great gig! Look at Xi Jinping. President for life. One day we should give that a shot here in America.

Steve Bannon: So, you’re here to get tips.

Donald Trump: Bingo, Steve. But also to form a true, lasting partnership. I want a dictator to call my own. One true alliance. With someone who won’t get kicked out of office. Who can love me warts and all.

Steve Bannon: The bigger the warts, the bigger the love! So, let’s move on to the questions and see who emerges tonight as top tyrant. Your first question, Mr. President.

Donald Trump: Dictator number one. We have a cozy date coming up in Helsinki this month. How do you plan to make the magic happen? How about a little pressure to get our Iranian friends out of Syria?

Vladimir Putin: Oh, Donald, that is so not sexy. That’s like asking about my other assignations on our first real date. In Helsinki, let’s go big or go home, as you Americans like to say. How about a new Yalta, me and you? We get Crimea and Syria, you get a copy of a certain DVD, a whisper in the ears of our Iranian friends to stay away from the Israeli border, and our promise to lay off the Baltic States. Deal, no deal?

Shout outs from audience.

Steve Bannon: Ooh, Vlad is playing hard to get. But you like that, don’t you Mr. President? Next question!

Donald Trump: Dictator Number Two, we got it in on in Singapore. But I’m worrying now that you’re getting cold feet. How do you propose we rekindle the romance?

Kim Jong Un: You showed me a good time in Singapore, Mr. Donald Trump. But then you sent your emissaries to my capital and they tried to twist my arm. I’m not into kinky stuff! I was very clear about what you need to give me for this relationship to work out. It’s got to be a staged, mutual process, with a peace treaty to end the Korean War and real security assurances. But that Pompeo and Bolton: they just want to strip away everything we got and screw us! Where’s the romance in that?

Whistles from audience.

Steve Bannon: A plea to go slow with Dictator Number Two. You can’t just grab ‘em by the nukes and do whatever you want with them. Okay, last question!

Donald Trump: Dictator Number Three, I hear people calling you a big reformer. But other people say you’re a tyrant at heart. Giving women the right to drive? Or cracking down on your Shia dissidents? I need to know where you stand, MbS, before I can really get into bed with you.

Mohammed bin Salman: I am fickle, just like you, Mr. President. But please don’t focus on what’s going on behind closed doors in my country. On the really important matters, you and I, we see eye to eye: we hate Iran, we love money, and we pretend that nebbish Jared Kushner is a lot smarter than he really is. We both want a peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians that empowers the former and basically eliminates any hope of statehood for the latter. We need the religious crazies on our side, but we need them on a leash. I’m no liberal. In fact I want more centralization of power — in my own hands! You’ve already given us a big gift by forcing countries to boycott Iranian oil, which drives up prices and our exports. Win win! That’s the art of the deal! You are my role model, Donald Trump!

Steve Bannon: Now that’s the language of love! What do you think, Mr. President?

Donald Trump: I think I’ve found my long-lost son.

Steve Bannon: Should we be expecting yet another lawsuit from a wronged woman?

Laughter.

Donald Trump: Oh, no. I was speaking metaphysically.

Steve: Bannon: Ah, I see. Don’t you mean —

Donald Trump: Right, metabolically.

Steve Bannon: Okaaay. Before we get to tonight’s Big Choice, I just want to make sure that our contestant is happy with our selection tonight. Our past contestants, including all your recent predecessors, have insisted that we include a democrat or two in the mix even if they bed down with their favorite dictator at the end of the show. Mr. President, should we have included Justin Trudeau? He’s quite a hunk.

Donald Trump: Very dishonest and weak.

Steve Bannon: Okay, how about Theresa May? You’ve got a hot date with her coming up.

Donald Trump: I like Boris Johnson.

Steve Bannon: Yes, but what about Theresa May?

Donald Trump: I like Boris Johnson.

Steve Bannon: I see. Then let’s chat about Angela Merkel. Germany is the most powerful country in Europe.

Donald Trump: She owes me a trillion dollars.

Steve Bannon: Don’t you mean that she owes the United States a trillion dollars?

Donald Trump: Oh, it will eventually end up in my pocket one way or another.

Steve Bannon: Finally, what about Japan’s Shinzo Abe?

Donald Trump: Lousy golfer. Fell into a bunker. Also owes me money.

Steve Bannon: That’s our due diligence part of the show. We’ve determined that our contestant clearly prefers dictators over democrats, and in today’s culture we must respect a person’s sexual preferences. So, Mr. President, which of these three strong, mysterious men will you take along with you on a dream weekend of guy talk, fast food, and strategizing world domination?

Donald Trump: Oh, this is a very difficult choice, Steve. I had a great time with Rocket Man but the follow-through has been disappointing so far. I’m looking forward to my first real date with Vladimir but honestly, the guy scares me a little bit. We could have a great relationship, but the breakup could be really rocky.

Steve Bannon: Which leaves…

Donald Trump: My man Mohammed! He’s going to be king one day. I’ve always wanted to be king. And four wives — that’s hot!

Applause.

Steve Bannon: A wise choice, Mr. President. And a bold one considering that MbS is a Muslim.

Donald Trump: See, some of my best friends are Muslims!

Steve Bannon: Now let me tell you about the fantastic package we have for you two besties. We’re sending you for a weekend extravaganza to….the Trump International Golf Club in Dubai! We know that our contestant feels most at home in his own properties. And Dubai is a favorite vacation retreat for Saudi royals. You’ll be spending three days and two nights in one of the Middle East’s premier luxury getaways. You’ll be able to play on the Championship-style, 18-hole golf course designed by world-renowned architect Gil Hanse, which provides a one-of-a-kind experience for golfers of all skill levels.

Donald Trump: You said, “one of the Middle East’s premier luxury getaways.” There you go again, Sloppy Steve. It is the premier luxury getaway. There can be only one number one.

Steve Bannon: And that just happens to be the tagline of our show! Dictators — there can be only one number one. We’ll see you next week with another chance to pair the world’s top tyrants with the democrats who can’t wait to take them home and coddle them. Until next time!

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, July 11, 2018

Categories
Articles Featured Human Rights

World to Refugees: Go to Hell

It’s a famous story, though perhaps not famous enough.

The 1939 voyage of the MS St. Louis, a German ocean liner, was recounted in a 1974 book and a 1976 film (both titled Voyage of the Damned) as well as a 1994 opera. This history is not forgotten. Yet so many unfortunate people around the world are still doomed to repeat it.

In 1939, the MS St. Louis carried more than 900 Jewish refugees away from Germany. The ship docked in Cuba, but the government there allowed only a handful of passengers to disembark. The others learned to their surprise that Havana didn’t recognize their visas. So, the ship headed to the United States. But the Roosevelt administration also refused to accept the refugees — and even sent out the Coast Guard to make sure that the ship didn’t try to dock illegally and unload its passengers. Canada, too, refused to get involved.

So, the MS St. Louis returned to Europe where it put in at Antwerp. Some of the passengers made their way to the United Kingdom. The rest were caught up in the turmoil of the subsequent Nazi invasions of Belgium, the Netherlands, and France. Ultimately, 254 of the original passengers died in the Holocaust.

In 2012, the U.S. State Department officially apologized to the survivors of the incident. Canada plans to follow suit this year.

But those apologies mean little to the people who currently face a similar situation. Today, thousands of refugees face grave harm if they return to their countries of origin. And yet the United States, Turkey, Israel, China, and others blithely return these refugees as part of a worldwide crackdown on “illegal” immigration.

This week, as the international community marks World Refugee Day, 22.5 million people have fled their countries to seek refuge elsewhere. In 2016, a mere 189,000 were resettled. That’s less than 1 percent. It’s as if the entire population of Taiwan were uprooted and forced to find a new country, but only a single neighborhood from the capital city managed to find safe harbor.

Donald Trump is at the forefront of this scandalously cruel approach to refugees. But he’s not alone. Here are four examples from around the world of how governments continue to turn away the modern-day equivalents of the MS St. Louis.

Trump’s Dream

The world is experiencing the greatest refugee crisis since World War II. The Trump administration’s response has been to reduce the annual number of spots available for refugees from around 70,000 to 45,000, the lowest number since 1980. And the administration is doing whatever it can to ensure that even this lower number won’t be reached.

Syria, still convulsed by civil war, has produced the world’s largest group of refugees: over 5.5 million people. In the last year of the Obama administration, the United States accepted about 15,000 Syrian refugees, which paled in comparison to Germany (not to mention Turkey, Jordan, or Lebanon). This year, as of mid-April, the Trump administration has allowed in 11. “The United States will not be a migrant camp, and it will not be a refugee holding facility,” Trump said this month.

It gets worse. The Justice Department announced last week that asylum-seekers couldn’t claim gang warfare or domestic violence as reasons to stay in the United States. This comes at a time when displacement because of violence is climbing rapidly in Central America, a trend affecting 16 times more people at the end of 2017 than in 2011. Indeed, many of the people desperately trying to get across the U.S. border, including unaccompanied minors, are escaping not just general violence but very specific death threats.

In The New Yorker, Sarah Stillman reported on her project to create a database of all those whom the U.S. government has deported into harm’s way. The stories included Laura S., who pleaded with U.S. border patrol not to return her to Mexico, where her ex-husband, a member of a drug cartel, had threatened to kill her. U.S. agents ignored her entreaties. In Mexico, Laura S. tried to steer clear of her ex-husband. But he was determined, and he eventually succeeded. Her charred skeleton was found in her burned-out car. Thanks to Attorney General Jeff Sessions, the de facto indifference of the U.S. government to claims of domestic violence has become de jure.

Another method by which the Trump administration is sending people into harm’s way is by rescinding temporary protected status (TPS). Head of Homeland Security Kirstjen Nielsen has dutifully implemented the president’s directive to kick out as many people from the United States as possible. Reports USA Today:

Nielsen has now cut TPS for El Salvador, Honduras, Haiti, Nepal, Nicaragua and Sudan, which represents 98% of the people covered by the program. That means TPS enrollees from those countries, many of whom have legally lived in the U.S. for nearly 30 years, must return home in the coming months or risk becoming undocumented immigrants.

Imagine FDR not only refusing to accept the MS St. Louis but sending tens of thousands of German Jews, who had been living in the United States for decades, back to Nazi Germany.

Trump’s policy on refugees is only part of his larger assault on immigrants, from the Muslim travel ban and the separation of families at the border to his attempt to deport the 800,000 Dreamers. Even the Republican Party is abandoning Trump on the key elements of his anti-immigrant platform. But Trump wants to make America as white as possible — by all means necessary.

Israeli Cognitive Dissonance

Around 35,000 Eritreans and Sudanese are currently seeking asylum in Israel. They have escaped war and massive human rights violations. Although many have lived in Israel for nearly a decade, speak Hebrew, and send their children to Israeli schools, the government wants to deport them to Rwanda or Uganda. There they faced considerable risks of imprisonment or even forced return to their home countries. Worse, it turned out a couple months ago that the Israeli government didn’t have any agreements with Rwanda and Uganda to protect the deportees.

The government also didn’t count on the public pushback. Writes David Shulman in The New York Review of Books:

El Al pilots and flight crews refused to fly the deportees to their deaths. Doctors, academics, lawyers, and many ordinary citizens, including Holocaust survivors and their relatives, spoke out. Some synagogues joined the struggle. Many stressed the unthinkable cognitive dissonance that arises from watching a Jewish state, founded by refugees from lethal oppression, sending tens of thousands of desperate African refugees to an unknown and precarious fate.

In a recent report, Amnesty International blasted the government of Benjamin Netanyahu for its policy. The organization’s head of refugee and migrant rights, Charmain Mohamed, was pointed in her denunciation: “Israel is one of the most prosperous countries in the region but it is going out of its way to shirk its responsibility to provide refuge to people fleeing war and persecution and who are already on its territory.”

As in the United States, the courts have proven to be a major obstacle to the assault on immigrants. Despite the High Court’s rejection of the government’s attempt to deport the Eritreans and Sudanese, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is attempting to push the Knesset to override the judicial decision.

As with Trump, Netanyahu is acting on behalf of the besieged majority, in this case Israeli Jews. His appalling immigration policies are of a piece with his apartheid treatment of Palestinians.

Repatriation to Afghanistan

Afghanistan is one of the poorest and most violent countries in the world. It also, after Syria, produces the most refugees in the world. On top of the one million people who have been internally displaced, there are nearly 6 million Afghan refugees, most of them living in either Pakistan or Iran.

Most, but not all.

About 300,000 Afghan refugees live in Europe. Many more have applied for asylum. European governments have been rejecting most of those applications, arguing that Afghanistan no longer poses a sufficient danger to returnees. Yet in 2017, for the fourth year in a row, more than 10,000 Afghan civilians died or were injured in the war. This comes on top of the combat deaths of Afghan security forces and Taliban fighters, which totaled more than 20,000 last year.

Even for those not on Taliban target lists, these refugees are returning to a dangerous and unstable country. Reports Pamela Constable in The Washington Post:

Insurgents control or influence nearly 40 percent of Afghan territory and stage frequent attacks in cities. Some of their families have fled rural fighting, weakening their social support networks. The returnees may not face imminent harm, but they see no way to build a future.

Pakistan and Iran have been even more forceful with their deportations. Since January, Iran has sent home 242,000 Afghan refugees; in the last 15 months, Pakistan has expelled 260,000 Afghans. These repatriations are an extraordinary burden on a country ill prepared to provide services to its current population. There are few jobs available for the returnees and little in the way of assistance from international organizations.

A recent ceasefire brought some hope that the Afghan government and the Taliban could work out the terms of a peace agreement. But the Taliban have rejected a proposed extension and vow to continue fighting.

Back to the Gulag

Donald Trump thinks that North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is “smart” and “very talented.” The U.S. president didn’t raise human rights issues at the recent Singapore summit — and perhaps that’s for the best, given the focus on nuclear issues and Trump’s own distressing lack of interest in human rights.

But the human rights situation inside North Korea remains dire, particularly for the 80,000-130,000 trapped in the complex of labor camps. Tens of thousands of North Koreans have escaped to China and other countries. Even if they left North Korea for economic reasons, they risk imprisonment in the North Korean gulag if they return. Thus, according to international law, North Koreans in China should be considered refugees sur place, since they have acquired a well-founded fear of persecution after leaving their country. Sending such refugees back is a clear human rights violation.

Yet China continues to detain and send North Koreans back across the border. With the threat of repatriation hanging over them, North Korean women are particularly vulnerable and frequently subjected to trafficking and forced prostitution.

There’s not a lot that either the United States or South Korea can do to persuade North Korea to dismantle its gulag or improve the conditions there. Pyongyang is largely resistant to “name and shame” tactics (though human rights organizations should obviously continue the practice).

However, Seoul and Washington can pressure Beijing to observe international aw by not repatriating North Korean refugees. South Korea has a population of 30,000 North Korean refugees who have become South Korean citizens. That hasn’t prevented Seoul from negotiating agreements with Pyongyang or holding two recent inter-Korean summits. At the very least, China should stop rounding up North Korean refugees, even if it doesn’t accord them proper status.

In 1939, the United States, Canada, and Cuba all refused to help a boatload of desperate refugees from Europe. Today, the world faces an ever-growing flotilla of the desperate. And the response is the same: go back to the hell you just escaped.

The world leaders who adopt this policy have no shame. In the case of Donald Trump and those like him, they’re even proud of it. They richly deserve a return ticket — back to the rocks from under which they crawled.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, June 20, 2018